Modern With a Capital “M” — Redux

One of the many pleasures I’ve experienced since I began writing this column for the Jewish Standard is the friendship I developed with its editor (see my column, “Five generations,” 5/27/16).

But as with all friendships, this one also has its bumps in the road. For example, the editor is, quite inexplicably to me, a Mets fan, while I — as befitting someone who was privileged to live for his first five years on the Grand Concourse and 156th St. in the shadow of the House that Ruth Built — root for the Yankees. Thankfully, we have somehow managed to bridge that chasm.

Another disagreement arose at the very inception of our relationship. It relates to, of all things, typography. (Really.) In my very first Standard column, I referred to the “Modern Orthodox” community. That phrase, though, was edited to read “modern Orthodox” in the printed version. I brought up this editorial change in an email to the editor, and in the ensuing thread we discussed, and disagreed about, its necessity. But since she’s the editor and I’m not, we now use the following protocol: When I want to use that phrase in a column (as I often do), the draft I submit contains Modern Orthodox (put down your blue pencil, Joanne, I’m making a point), the print version in the Standard reads modern Orthodox, and that reverts yet again to Modern Orthodox when it is republished online in my Times of Israel/Jewish Standard blog.

This is not a new issue for me. I first wrote about it 15 years ago, in an article that appeared in the late (and lamented by me and I hope others) Edah Journal, titled “Modern With a Capital ‘M.’” In that article (which can be found by googling the title), I posit that “Modern Orthodox Jews — modern with a capital ‘M’ — do more than modernize our Orthodoxy and ensure that the modern twenty-first century lives we live are Orthodox; we have a strong affirmative commitment to modernity and certain of its values which we strive to infuse with sanctity. To the Modern Orthodox Jew, ‘Modern’ is not simply an adjective modifying ‘Orthodox’; rather, it also connotes an extra-halachic allegiance to certain modern values apart from, in addition to, and — to state the obvious — not in conflict with our Orthodoxy.” The remainder of that article contains examples that, I argue, support that thesis.

I still believe in the thesis and supporting examples. But I recently heard a lecture called “The Curious Invention Named Modern Orthodoxy” by R. Dr. Zev Eleff, Chief Academic Officer of Hebrew Theological College and an up-and-coming American Jewish history star, which helped me rethink the question of the relationship between “modern” and “orthodox” and conclude that there is another reason the “M” should be capitalized.

It’s more than the relationship I discussed in my earlier article and still believe is correct. Rather, it’s also that the two-word phrase “Modern Orthodox” has become the title of a group (I hesitate to use the word denomination) — like Chabad or Reconstructionist — which is more than the sum of its individual parts and their meanings. It’s a brand name that both denotes and unifies our community; it’s a shorthand way to tell others, both our compatriots and not, who we are, where we fit in on the spectrum of Jewish communities and religious groups, and some of what we stand for, what specific values we cherish, and what practices we hold dear.

At an earlier time in American Jewish history, that shorthand was mainly an exclusionary one; that is, it told others who we were not. To say we were Modern Orthodox was to say we were not chassidic or charedi (to be anachronistic) or Conservative or Reform; that we didn’t, for example, have Yiddish sermons, mixed seating, or microphones, or use the Silverman siddur, in our shuls. But these “nots,” important as they were while we were slowly finding our way in America, tells only half the story.

Knowing who you are not is just the first step to the more critical one of discovering who you are.

And so, as we entered the second half of the 20th century, a more positive understanding took hold. It’s not, of course, that all Modern Orthodox Jews or communities are the same, or have identical values and practices. Rather, it’s that there are some basic values and practices, in addition to a commitment to Torah and halacha, that we share, and that are highlighted by the Modern Orthodox brand.

We share, for example, a belief in Zionism, and in being actors rather than merely observers in history; a belief in the inherent value of a secular education, which opens us up to the grandeur of our God-given world; a belief in democracy and its rights and freedoms as secular American values, albeit consonant with our Jewish ones; a belief in tolerance of, and respect for, the other, both within and outside our community; and a belief in the importance of providing women with equal access to a high level of Jewish learning and a role in the leadership, including the religious leadership, of our community.

Of course, even with respect to these basic values there are different shadings, sometimes important ones, on details and emphases. For example, there are both single sex and co-ed Modern Orthodox elementary and high schools, each with strongly committed and opinionated adherents. Yet we not only tolerate and respect both choices, but we also understand that our shared commitment to giving our daughters the highest level Jewish education is far more significant than the disagreement over whether it should be taught in a co-ed or separate environment.

And so when we say we are Modern Orthodox Jews or a Modern Orthodox community or shul or school, we are telling others the general parameters of what they can expect when they get to know us or visit (or join) our community. But even more importantly, we are reiterating those expectations to other members of our community, to our children, and even, or perhaps especially, to ourselves.

About the Author
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist for the Jewish Standard, is the author of “A Passionate Writing Life: From ‘In my Opinion’ to ‘I’ve Been Thinking’” (available at Teaneck's Judaica House and its website). A retired lawyer and long-time resident of Teaneck with his wife Sharon, they’ve been blessed with four wonderful daughters and five delicious grandchildren.
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